Burying the Tomahawk

There’s an odd side-note to the story of Stock Whitley (“Honored Enemy”), the Warm Springs scout who was mortally wounded while fighting alongside Army troops against Paulina’s raiders near the Crooked River in 1864, a tale that involves a tomahawk with innocent blood on it.

In 1833 a physician and missionary named Dr. Marcus Whitman crossed the Plains with his family and traveled the Oregon Trail to establish a mission a few miles from where the city of Walla Walla now stands.  The correspondent who wrote the account of Stock Whitley’s death for the Sacramento Daily Union in 1864, also included some information about Dr. Whitman and the saga of the pipe tomahawk which was the instrument of his death.

For twelve long years he lived among them, and the fruits of his labor were to be seen in cultivated fields and comfortable homes belonging to the Indians, who had cheerfully adopted the civilization he taught them, and showed enlightment and progress that rewarded well the labor of untiring years.

The measles broke out among the families of the tribe, and owing to the habits of exposure of savage life it proved fatal in many instances.  There were consternation and dismay as a natural consequence, and the superstition that was a plant of natural growth sprang up again ranker than ever, and soon outstripped the slow civilization that had come with later life … the seed of distrust was sown, and they began to believe that the medicine of the white man was the destroyer.

Distrust grew as the epidemic claimed more lives, until local Cayuse Indians vented their frustration by attacking Whitman’s Waiilatpu Mission.  Dr. Whitman and a dozen other adult whites, including his wife Narcissa, were killed and fifty-four women and children were imprisoned and held for ransom.  A tribal leader named Tomahas was accused of bludgeoning and butchering Dr. Whitman with a pipe tomahawk, said to have been a ceremonial gift to the Cayuses from the Blackfeet.  A few years later Tomahas, another tribal leader, and three others involved in the attack agreed to travel to Oregon City to stand trial for the killings.  The theory for the defense was that even if the doctor had not been poisoning the Indians, as he was suspected of doing, if their own shaman had lost as many patients as Dr. Whitman had, the tribe would have been perfectly within their rights to kill him.  The court disagreed, and the five members of the Cayuse delegation were hanged.

More than ten years after this, the Indian tribes east of the mountains rose to crush the whites, and commenced a war, known and memorable for the jobbing and speculation that characterized it, and so poorly paid for in part with greenbacks not many months ago.

Stock Whitley, the Deschutes Chief, was the bravest leader the Indians had in this conflict, and the Cayuses owed him a debt they repaid in part by a ceremonious presentation of the ancient tomahawk.  I can imagine that while the bowl that formed part of it was being filled with the friendly weed, and the smoke it gave - drawn through the handle - was being puffed forth in circling colums from dusky lips, the orators of the wilderness were giving their honored ally the history of the gift they were bestowing upon him.    

Whitley was supposed to have carried the weapon with him throughout the wars of 1855 and 1856 against the white invaders.  After the scouting mission for the Army that cost him his life in 1864, Stock Whitley’s family presented the tomahawk and a beaded pouch ornamented with Whitley’s likeness to a local scout and Indian agent named Donald McKay.  In the 1860’s McKay gave the tomahawk to William Logan, Superintendent of Indian Affairs at the Warm Springs Reservation.  

The tomahawk saw service in at least one more armed conflict, the American Civil War.  William Logan put the souvenir on display in a Sanitary Fair, staged to raise money for the care of Union soldiers.  Eventually the gift made its way to the Oregon Historical Society, where it resides today.       

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com